Last month we looked at five reasons you can trust your Bible. The first five reasons had more of a theological bent, looking at what Scripture said about itself. In this second set of reasons, we will focus more on technical reasons for why the Bible you read today is the same Bible that was originally written.
6. While there are thousands of variations, they are not significant.
Many Christians are not aware that there are thousands of variations in the New Testament text. We get clues to this when we compare 1 John 5:7 in the NIV and KJV or when many translations do not include Acts 8:37. Initially this can be concerning. If there are so many variations how do we know which is correct? We will deal with that in the next points, but first you should know that of the thousands of variations, none of them offer a significant challenge to Christian doctrine. Why are there so many variations? It’s because the New Testament is a victim of its own success. With so many different people making copies of the Bible, certain variations arose. Let’s look at a breakdown of the types of variations in the text.
● Spelling Variations: About 70% of the variations are spelling differences. So one text may leave out a vowel, while the other includes it. We still have this type of thing today, take color and colour. Some people copying the New Testament couldn’t read themselves, so if they made a mistake in copying the text they didn’t necessarily know what they were writing and couldn’t check it by actually reading what they wrote. While some scribes were meticulous in copying, others seemed to pay less attention to detail.
● Variations that do not affect the translation: About 22% of the variations fall into this category. An example of this is where Luke 2:16 (ESV) reads, “And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph...” Some Greek manuscripts include the word “the” before Mary and Joseph. This doesn’t affect the translation or meaning of the text, but is likely a stylistic change.
● Variations that are not feasible. About 7% of variations would fall into this category. One example is where Luke 6:22 (ESV) reads, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!” One manuscript from around the 10th century doesn’t include “on account of the Son of Man.” This changes the meaning of the verse because it teaches that any persecution is a sign of blessing, not just persecution for the sake of Christ. But this variation is easily ignored because it only occurs in one manuscript and comes almost 1000 years after the original text was written.
● Variations without a clear choice. These are variations where there is not a clear correct choice, but these account for less than 1% of the variations in the New Testament. Even more, they don’t challenge any core doctrines. Many of these variations are actually rather boring. In seminary I did a project on one of these variations. In John 19:39 (ESV) it reads, “Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes...” Now there are several manuscripts with a different word for what is translated here as mixture. In addition to the Greek word for mixture, some manuscripts have a Greek word for package, another has a Greek word for ointment and other manuscripts have a spelling variation of one of the Greek words. In the end it is difficult to definitively say which Greek word used there was original. But you know what, none of them change the meaning of the verse.
7. The manuscripts are geographically separated.
The New Testament texts we have are geographically separated. This is helpful because if there is a variation in the text in the manuscripts coming from Western Europe, but those variations show up no where else in manuscripts from Egypt or the Middle East or Eastern Europe, then we can say that the variation was likely not original because all the variations are kept to a single geographical location. This makes the argument that the Bible was changed to fit certain theological positions untenable. Yes, there were changes made for this reason, but because the text was geographically separated, we can isolate those changes and see they were not part of the original text. No single group of people controlled the whole text of the New Testament.
8. There are objective methods used to figure out the original text
A lot of the work in figuring out the original New Testament text is done by scholars who are not necessarily believing Christians. This is actually a good thing! Because it means that they are seeking to put together the text without the same bias as, say, a Christian who may want to see things harmonize perfectly. Because this work is often done by scholars, they have less interest in getting everything to fit theologically and are more interested in figuring out the original text. These scholars have developed several principles when picking textual variants. Here are some of them:
● Lectio Difficilior – the more difficult reading is to be preferred because scribes would generally want to smooth things out or make it theological simpler
● Lectio Brevior – the shorter reading is the preferred reading. The scribe wants to make an idea more complete or clear.
● Lectio Potior– the longer reading is to be preferred. In manuscripts before the 4th century it was more common to shorten things to save space.
● The reading that best explains the rest of the others is preferred. Of the variations, which one would scribes be most tempted to change somehow.
9. The manuscripts are very old.
Some people criticise the New Testament because they say we don’t have the original copies of the books. Even worse, the earliest texts we have date to many years after the originals were written! For us, in this day-in-age, that seems to cast doubt on the reliability of the New Testament. But if we were to hold every ancient document to this standard we would be left with very few, if any ancient documents that we could trust. We have fragments of the Gospels that date to within a century of the original writings. While this may not sound like a lot for us where we keep preserved archives of all kinds of documents, the ancient world did not have this luxury. For a historical document that is almost 2000 years old it is quite remarkable to have such early manuscripts.
10. The Books of the New Testament were settled early on.
Many people are familiar with other gospels that existed around the time of the early church like the Gospel of Thomas. Why were these books not included in the Bibles we have? Here are several reasons for why we can be confident we have the right books in our Bibles.
● Many of these other Gospels are clearly different. The Gospel of Thomas includes 114 sayings of Jesus. One of these contains these words attributed to Jesus, “For every woman who makes herself male will enter into the kingdom of heaven.” It’s hard to believe Jesus actually said those words. Another example is from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, where a boy messes up a mud puddle that a young Jesus is playing in. Jesus gets mad at the other boy and causes him to be withered up like a tree. While such a story is amusing it does not fit with the image we have of Jesus in the other Gospels.
● The Gospels we have are the oldest ones. While there are other “Gospels” they mostly date to the second century. The oldest Gospels we have are the four that are in our Bibles.
● Certain books were seen as Scripture early on. In 2 Peter 3:15-6, Peter writes “ Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” What is pertinent for this discussion is that by the time 2 Peter was written, Paul’s writings were seen as Scripture.
● The early church quickly moved to the use of books. A scroll doesn’t have a clearly defined end, because you can just start writing on a new scroll. But when you make a book you have to decide what is included and what is left out. This plays into the discussion of books of the Bible because we see the early church was quick to start copying scriptures in a book format instead of a scroll. This indicates that early on they had a sense of what books were part of Scripture.
In conclusion, there are many reasons for why we can trust our Bibles. While these reasons may not convince the hardened doubter, they should provide confidence to the Christian as he or she reads, Scripture and seeks to conform his or her life to it.
Again, I’d love to talk with you more about this if you have questions.
For further reading:
Good online resource: http://michaeljkruger.com/
A good entry-level book: The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture's Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity, http://amzn.com/1433501430
A technical book on the manuscripts of the New Testament: The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, http://amzn.com/019516122X